When discussing decolonization and indigenous rights New Zealand has often been hailed for its progressive political landscape and efforts through economic settlement agreements to right the wrongs of British colonization against the indigenous Māori tribe. One can look at examples like in 2017 when after 140 years of negotiation, the Māori tribe won recognition for Whanganui river, meaning it has the same legal rights as a human being. However, upon closer examination, many barriers still exist to realizing human rights in New Zealand, including the high incarceration rate of the Māori people, who make up over half of the prison population despite being less than twenty percent of the total population. Although having gained full independence from Britain in 1947, New Zealand clearly still carries the legacy of settler colonialism.
This history is evident both in their current socio-economic structures and in the history of artistic work produced depicting the Māori tribe. Brilliantly, as I wrote this text a 1919 Charles F. Goldie painting titled Hori Pokai – A Sturdy Stubborn Chief sold at auction for $1.42 million. Goldie famously painted Māori dignitaries with the Victorian attitude that the Māori were a "dying race" and represented them through his posing as noble savages, reflecting his belief that Europeans were superior. Goldie was among one of the artists that Te Aho Jordan, a Māori photographer combating racist depicts like his, mentioned to me in our interview in reference to the importance of reclaiming tattooing practices known as Tā moko. Tā moko was long punished with incarceration and therefore only older Māori displayed the practice, incorrectly forging the perception that only high-status individuals are able to undergo the tattoo ceremony. Te Aho utilizes story-telling in their photography to authentically represent Māori identity and cultural practices, documenting Whaea Tracey, who underwent her tattoo journey in her mid-40s.
Similarly, Te Aho artfully positioned themselves in front of the camera for a series of self-portraits completed during the lockdown in New Zealand this August. Photographed by ingeniously using the yellow light of their laptop screen, Te Aho describes the self-portraiture process as affirming their non-binary gender identity. A product of a recent self-realization that came from learning about Māori attitudes towards gender and what Te Aho refers to as indigenizing their mindset concerning gender and sex. The Māori language includes a non-binary, or ira weherua-kore, pronoun and people can be referred to as ia, which is not gender-specific. In these portraits, Te Aho embraces darkness, discovering themselves and freeing themselves from the Western associations of darkness with negativity or death.
Te Aho’s biggest photographic drive comes from the oppression faced by the Māori in New Zealand, where for decades schools were mandated to destroy the Māori language, causing much oral history to be lost forever. Te Aho aims to preserve generational knowledge, by using a photographic documentary technique that stands in contrast to the way non-Māori photographers have traditionally told the most stereotypical story they could. While there has been incremental progress in decolonization worldwide, Te Aho speaks about how easy it is to destroy something and how difficult it is to heal. For Te Aho being Māori means embodying resilience. Māori see themselves separate from nothing, with connection and reciprocity at the core of their culture. Beliefs that result in giving relationships, and although there may not be equality in their lifetime, will allow the Māori to heal.